Critical Analysis: Environmental Threats to Human Security and International Law’s Response

Coping with climate change will be one of the most significant challenges the global community will face in the coming years. (The ICJ Project)
Coping with climate change will be one of the most significant challenges the global community will face in the coming years. (The ICJ Project)

International Law Weekend-West was held the weekend of February 2nd at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  The conference addressed a number of issues that should be on the forefront of the minds of all international lawyers who seek to address threats to human security.  The first panel’s topic (“Environmental Threats to Human Security and International Law’s Response”) dealt with a contentious issue not often associated with threats to human security: climate change.  This panel had three speakers; two focused specifically on the effect deforestation will have on human security, and the third speaker broadened the perspective to address how climate change will impact society as a whole.

The first speaker, Professor Richard Finkmoore of California Western School of Law, explained that deforestation must be stopped because (1) it will exponentially increase the effect of total climate change on the human race through increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and (2) it will reduce the world’s capability to compensate for the increase in the GHG emissions.  Deforestation not only affects the globe through an increase in the amount of carbon released through burning, but also because forests are among the world’s best carbon sinks and carbon reservoirs.  According to Professor Finkmoore, forests absorb one-third of all GHG emissions that come from the fossil fuel sector; it is estimated that the forests store twice as much GHG as is currently in the atmosphere.  Therefore, if the forests are burned not only will the globe be less able to absorb the carbon, but a vast amount of additional carbon emissions will occur, thereby accelerating the rate of climate change.  Consequently, Professor Finkmoore argues, the focus should shift from reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels to ensuring that the forests all over the world are not burned down.

Given the strong effect deforestation will have on climate change, the next logical question is what the international legal community is doing to address the issue.  The second panelist, Professor Annecoos Wiersema of the University of Denver, addressed one of the legal initiatives proposed to address deforestation.  This international initiative is called RED+, or the  Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Degradation and the Role of Conservation Sustainable Management of Forests and Enhancement of Forest Carbon Sinks.  RED+ resulted from discussions that began when Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea raised the idea as a suggestion to reduce climate change and protect their forests.  However, despite the promising name of RED+ there is still much to be done before it can actually be implemented.  The primary drawback to RED+ is that it is a very comprehensive and technical initiative, which means development is difficult and implementation will take a long time.  Current RED+ discussions are focused on how RED+ should actually be implemented, with the two primary options being either through an international regulatory framework or through national volunteer efforts.  Consequently, the legal framework to address deforestation and the implementation of RED+ is still in the beginning stages.

Given the uncertainty of RED+ implementation, the last speaker, Dr. Anita Halvorssen of the University of Denver, broadened the scope of the issue to address the impacts climate change will have on human security, specifically focusing on human security risks due to migration from fast and slow onset climate changes.  Under current refugee laws, people who immigrate are not granted refugee status unless they fled their home countries in response to specific fears of persecution.  Immigration as a result of climate change is not sufficient to receive refugee status.  Consequently no legal framework exists to address the issue of human security and the consequences of migration as a result of climate change.  Therefore, Dr. Halvorssen argued, the laws need to be modified or a new legal framework must be developed to address this emerging group of migrants who lack legal protection.

The panel discussion stressed the need for greater understanding of the relationship between human security and climate change.  These fields of law are becoming ever more important as the climate continues to change, and international lawyers would be wise to take an increased interest in these issues and the means to address them.

Katelin Knox is a 2L and a staff editor on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.